What is collapse? Conspiracy or a very real phenomenon?

Posted on 08 February 2011

The concept of collapse of our civilisation is often heard among conspiracy theorists, causing many mainstreamers out there to ignore the concept altogether. But should they? Is it really a word that should be owned by the conspiracy theorists and disregarded accordingly?

We believe we should not disregard it, but, rather than viewing ‘collapse’ through the lens of conspiracy theories, we could understand it in a historical and ecological sense. This then allows us to be realistic about future scenarios.

Have you heard of the global collapse of fish species? If not, you need to watch The End of the Line (see our previous post to watch it easily). You will discover that Atlantic cod stocks were severely overfished in the 1970s and 80s, leading to their abrupt collapse in 1992. In Newfoundland, Canada, the devastating collapse of cod has impoverished entire communities, and the cod stocks have never recovered. Do some more research and you’ll find the sole fisheries in the Irish Sea, the west English Channel, and other locations have become overfished to the point of virtual collapse, according to the UK government’s official Biodiversity Action Plan. The United Kingdom has created elements within this plan to attempt to restore this fishery, but the expanding global human population and demand for fish threatens the stability of these fisheries and the species’ survival.

The Mediterranean bluefin tuna stocks are collapsing right now because of excessive quotas and illegal catches. Conservation biologists regularly note the precipitous decline of other key species too, such as swordfish and sharks. Lose enough of these top-line predators (among other species), and the fear is that the oceanic web of life may collapse. According to this article, geologists at Brown University and the University of Washington have a cautionary tale: lose enough species in the oceans, and the entire ecosystem could collapse. Looking at two of the greatest mass extinctions in Earth’s history, the scientists attribute the ecosystems’ collapse to a loss in the variety of species sharing the same space. It took up to 10 million years after the mass extinctions for the ecosystem to stabilize.

Alternatively, you have probably heard of Colony Collapse Disorder? This is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. There are all sorts of theories explaining it – environmental change-related stresses, malnutrition, pesticides, migratory beekeeping, genetically modified (GM) crops with pest control characteristics – but it has also been suggested that it may be due to a combination of many factors and that no single factor is the cause. Whatever the reason, the result is terrifying! No more bees, no more pollination, no more food. Find out in this short clip how the dying bee colonies are impacting our food supply and what we can do to save them.

It’s increasingly clear that biodiversity is rapidly declining, worldwide. Species are going extinct before they can be catalogued, and those whose numbers were significant a decade ago have become rare. Without bees, many food crops (apples, soybeans, almonds, peaches, cherries, strawberries, and more) would not bear fruit. Similarly, without a robust bird population, many beetle and locust populations might explode. Without frogs, mosquito and other insect populations may swarm – creating a flow on effect by unbalancing other ecosystem interrelationships. And, without even the microscopic life, like plankton, then the tiny plankton-eaters, which feed the small fish, which feed the bigger fish, which feed the sharks, all crash. Everything is interconnected.

So, what does that mean for us humans? Can we, as a species, collapse too?

In a word…. yes.  It has happened before and it can happen again.

In Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, he argues that the Easter Island society collapsed in isolation entirely due to environmental damage. But there are many other historical accounts of collapse too. There has been societal collapse such as that of the Mayan Civilisation as well as long declines of superpowers like the Roman Empire in Western Europe and the Han Dynasty in East Asia. There have been collapses related to the organisational structures of some societies, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union – occurring due to structural burden in its internal complex system and not due to an external attack.

History includes many examples of the appearance and disappearance of human societies with no obvious explanation but the common factors appearing to contribute to societal collapse are economic, environmental, social and cultural, but they manifest combined effects like a whole system out of balance. In many cases a natural disaster seems to be the immediate cause but this seems insufficient reasoning given other civilisations in similar situations were resilient and survived.

According to experts, the combined breakdown of economic, cultural and social institutions with ecological relationships is perhaps the most common feature of collapse.

So consider this…  loss of credibility of the dominating neoliberalist ideology… people’s loss of confidence for their governments in all parts of the world… technology enabling exploitation of depleting resources… the environment’s suffering and diminishing returns hidden from view or not being prioritised… population growth while resources decline… structural weaknesses of the financial system underpinning the global economy… global pandemics… increase in global climate disruption… is the human species threatened?

Is collapse a real ecological concept to pay attention to or will you simply wipe it aside as another conspiracy theory?

UPDATE: The following post is a continuation of our reflection on the subject of collapse: Is the world as we know it going to collapse?


 


7 responses to What is collapse? Conspiracy or a very real phenomenon?

  • aoristus says:

    All very valid points and I will admit this topic is one of my concerns too. One thing I would like to point out thought is that throughout history there have been numerous “collapse/End of the world” theories that never really materialised. They were all expressed in the intellectual and cultural framework of the time when they appeared, be it Middle Ages milleniasm, 18th century overpopulation concerns, the Black Death etc. However absurd they may seem now, they were perfectly logical in the contemporary scientific/cultural/religious framework. As are global warming and modern ecology collapse theories, in the age of science and reason (that we hope we live in).
    To conclude, I am not dismissing the fact that something very sinister is happening; I am just drawing attention to the fact that such theories (i.e. of total collapse) are nothing new.

    [Reply]

  • Making Sense of Things says:

    You are perfectly correct Aoristus 🙂 Doomsday theories, fear of collapse, the end of the world, plagues and retribution from higher beings have been around forever.

    In this case I think what is happening could very well lead to collapse because our civilisation is a global, interdependent one, no longer contained to a geographical area.

    What I hope though is that it won’t happen because people will change their behaviour as their awareness of the issues grows. At the end of the day concerns lying behind the likelihood of the current collapse are relevant because they are urgent issues that need to be tackled; and discussions and action concerning ‘collapse’ related issues are important, precisely to prevent it…

    Last but not least, we definitely appreciate your feedback Aoristus and we share your historical perspective on the subject 😉

    [Reply]

  • Stamp says:

    What a coincidence, I just finished reading “Collapse” today as well as two other books in the same stream.

    1. The Watchmen’s Rattle

    http://www.suite101.com/content/the-watchmans-rattle-examines-triggers-for-social-collapse-a293368

    Which examines the idea that a society’s problems simply become too complex to solve leading to a sequence of events leading to collapse.

    So while past collapses made sense in the historical context of the times they occurred and seem absurd to us now, our age of reason and science is currently tackling promblems of far greater complexity so that this mechanism of collapse is definitely as relevent today as it was in the past.

    2. The Big Mo

    http://www.harpercollins.com.au/books/Big-Mo-Why-Momentum-Now-Rules-Our-World-Mark-Roeder/?isbn=9780733328367

    The Big Mo examines the idea of momentum which is exacerbated by our global interconnected society (that is, larger “mass”) and deregulation, a corner stone of neo-liberalism (that is, less “friction” to slow momentum). The result being that when momentum gets out of control the result is a train wreck

    Three very different authors approcahing the same problem of collapse from different angles and different backgrounds and very little conspiracy (other than references) between them.

    [Reply]

    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Thanks Stamp for your feedback – and for pointing to us the links above. We actually weren’t aware of these books, so we’ll definitely have a look at these.
    The concept of ‘collapse’ often seems to raise disdain and incredulity, but when approached reflexively, there is a lot we can learn from it.
    We’re currently writing a follow-up to this post, so we hope to provide additional elements of reflection. Do feel free to contribute again!

    [Reply]

  • Stamp says:

    Yes, the more angles viewed on this subject, the better we are armed with the tools to anticipate and act.

    Thomas Homer Dixon – Upside of Down is another of note among the many authors on this subject

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Homer-Dixon

    As for people who view collapse through the lense of conspiracy, in my reading and viewing, the threat of collapse is seen as a way of justifying a hidden agenda of world governance and population control which of course can get a lot of people onside with the collapse (and global warming) conspiracy theroies. Try watching these Alex Jones documentarties

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Jones_%28radio_host%29

    You will probably say to yourself “WTF are they on about” but I find it instructive to view material I don’t agree with.

    Then of course there are the really disrturbing collapse theories that would be funny if not for the fact that so many people believe in them. This is a great read

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1464049.Have_a_Nice_Doomsday

    A little anecdote to leave you with. I was overseas during the recent flooding in Brisbane and only returned last week so I watched it all unfold from afar. On arriving back I went for a walk along the river through the city. While most things are getting back to normal, the riverside restaurants are a write off. There is one little cafe I often stop at for a coffee on my daily walk (CJG will know it – maybe?) and I knew it got flooded from nearmap photos. To my surprise it was open for business. Not only that but there was no evidence of a flood at all. I asked the waiter if they got flooded and yes they did, right up to the underside of the bar. Incredulous, I asked how they managed when everyone else was wiped out. Apparently the owner, who had no flood insurance heeded the warnings and stripped the cafe out right down to removing the carpet. Two weeks after the flood had receeded he was back in business like nothing had happened. I guess the point is, forewarned is forearmed. A good lesson to take forward on this subject.

    [Reply]

    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Stamp, thanks again for the multiple links you are sharing with us… you nicely contribute in increasing our homework! 🙂
    We also agree with you that it is important to be open to views that you disagree with. Conspiracy theories are interesting in that they raise points one would not necessarily think of. But as we wrote on a post about Wikileaks and conspiracy theories, these theories are not often substantiated and their authors are often victim of confirmation bias (whereby the information that do not support their world view is ignored).
    As per the cafe on the river, yep CJG does know it. And although we haven’t had the same experience than you on this regards, we certainly agree that, when confronted to a disaster, preparedness – as well as keeping the right posture when it happens – are key to surviving it.
    Altogether, no one knows whether the world as we know it will collapse or not, but not thinking about it or not taking preventative measures will certainly contribute in aggravating it when/if it happens. In contrast, talking about it may contribute in taking the right step to avoid it… So let’s open up the debate!

    [Reply]

  • Stamp says:

    I lifted this from Wikipedia about testing a conspiracy theory. It’s simply based on the same tests you apply to a scientific theory.

    * Occam’s razor – does the conspiracy explain more of the evidence than the mainstream story, or is it just a more complicated and therefore less useful explanation of the same evidence? (Stamp – in science the theory that relies on the least assumptions is the one to pursue)
    * Logic – do the proofs offered follow the rules of logic, or do they employ fallacies of logic?
    * Methodology – are the proofs offered for the argument well constructed, i.e., using sound methodology? Is there any clear standard to determine what evidence would prove or disprove the theory?
    * Whistleblowers – how many people – and what kind – have to be loyal conspirators? The more wide-ranging and pervasive the conspiracy is alleged to be, the greater the number of people would have to be involved in perpetrating it – is it credible that nobody involved has brought the affair to light? (Stamp – you would think that someone would have made a death bed confession about JFKs assination by now after 50 years)
    * Falsifiability – would it be possible to determine whether specific claims of the theory are false, or are they “unfalsifiable”? (Stamp – this is the clincher for me and pretty much sums up a conspiracy theory as “unfalsifiable” )

    On collapse, it’s not a question “if?” but

    1. When?
    2. How fast?
    3. How far?
    4. How to recover?

    Ignoring the prospect of collapse (or any problem for that matter) will probably yeild the following answers

    1. A big surprise
    2. Very rapid
    3. Rock bottom
    4. No idea, can’t think, I’m in panic mode!

    That cafe is doing booming Valentine business tonight being the only one operating on the river. Another payoff for preparedness.

    [Reply]

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